Burke Idaho

Note – I originally sketched out this post this back in 2011, fully expecting to do the research needed to finish it up in the next few weeks, then completely forgetting about it until a few days ago. D’oh! Well, I finally had time for the research and truly enjoyed “revisiting” this amazing spot virtually. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it too.


07-03-2011 We left Wallace early Sunday morning, taking an inconspicuous road underneath the freeway and further up into the hills. Our destination was Burke Idaho, a mining town that was mainly ghosts and a few current residents who were willing to put up with possible landslides and collapsing mines to revel in the rugged beauty of this place (or the cheap land costs).

We rode through little hamlets with hopeful names like Sunshine and and Gem, rolling to a stop in front of the monolithic structures of the defunct Hecla Mines. Eerie even in the bright morning sunshine, these huge brick and cement structures just begged to be explored, but newly erected fencing and multitudes of “No Trespassing” signs (along with our own need for self preservation) keep us on the right side of the fence. But I’m getting ahead of myself here, let’s go back a few years to see what this place is all about.

Bustling Burke in the 1920's.

Bustling Burke in 1897.

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Lonerock has a lone rock. And a church. And lots of other awesome buildings.

So, on the map in the middle of pretty much nowhere is a place called Lonerock.


It’s not exactly the kind of place that you go through on the way to someplace else, which is probably why we haven’t visited yet.

We were looking for some gravel roads to explore, and this area has a nice selection, with some wet weather the week before it was a perfect time to do a bit of dirt.

First things first, breakfast and coffee in Fossil.

First things first, breakfast and coffee in Fossil.

Then on to some tasty road selections with beautiful views!

With views like this, I can understand why residents down in that valley are willing to put up with this road.

With views like this, I can understand why residents down in that valley are willing to put up with this road.

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Steens Mountain with stops in Diamond, Frenchglen, and the Round Barn

Continuing on our quest to finally go all the places we’re surprised that we haven’t been before, we decided to ride out to the Steens on Saturday. We were thinking we’d make a weekend of it, heading home through Silver Lake, but ended up making it an epic one-day 625-mile ride instead.


Besides the Steens loop, we wanted to check out Diamond and also the Peter French Round Barn. We got started nice and early, on the road by a little  after 6am (note to other riders, yes, we know this is deer-thirty, and yes, we know it’s stupid to ride this early and also ride as late as we did). We had a fun sighting of a beautiful hot air balloon hovering over Hwy 97, sure was a nice way to start the day.

Hot air balloon on the road out of town in the morning.

Hot air balloon on the road out of town in the morning.

The remainder of our ride to Burns was uneventful, it’s not an ugly road, but there’s really nothing very beautiful about it either. Continue reading

A Prison of Their Own Making

A few years ago, riding from somewhere to somewhere else, Mike and I spent the night in Deer Lodge Montana. Riding into town at dusk, we turned a corner and saw what appeared to be a castle. A closer look revealed barbed wire and sentry turrets. This imposing structure was the old Montana State Prison, originally opened in 1871 and overcrowded nearly from day one, it was the site of deplorable conditions, riots, and the occasional humorous story.

The prisoners happily vacated the these antiquated digs and moved in to a modern prison in 1979. New inmates began showing up shortly afterward, although in this case their stays were short and they paid to get in. Mike and I joined these ranks today by walking in the front door and plunking down $9 apiece (with AAA discount!) to enjoy an afternoon with old cars and iron bars.

This prison complex has a much different feel to it than Alcatraz (one of the few other prison museums we’ve visited). Because Alcatraz was left derelict for many years, it has a feeling of separation from its time as a prison. The Old Montana State Prison doesn’t have that softening of years and layering of other experiences. It went directly from being a prison to being a museum with very little “restoration” done. There is peeling paint hanging from ceilings, the sound of dripping water greets your entry into the basement showers and the cold is bitter even though summer sun is warm outside, rust runs down brick like dried blood, voices echo through hallways, and solid steel doors can still swing shut on dark cells with a touch (thankfully locks have been disabled).

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Walsenburg Power Plant

Okay, there might have been a No Trespassing sign that we missed, but from the angle we came in at, we really didn’t see any, and this beautiful and massive old brick structure was just too cool to pass up.

The poor old building is still grand, but has definitely seen better days and will need to have something done soon or it’ll be too far gone to save much more than bricks.

Here’s a story about the area and the plant I found online:

The Walsenburg Power Plant Story from http://www.huerfanojournal.com/node/1694 The building has been gutted and vandalized.  Its east wall is half gone.  Much of its valuable scrap metal has been scavenged.  The old Walsenburg Power Plant just west of the city limits stands officially as one of Colorado’s Most Endangered Places.  It was built extremely well to stand the test of time.  Few people remain today who can testify to the life and times of years gone by as it can.  Its current out-of-town owners are seeking funding to somehow reuse the building in a fitting tribute to times when coal was king here over a century ago.  There was a time when Colorado Fuel & Iron (CF&I) was using coal supplied by Huerfano and Las Animas coal camps to make steel at its mill in Pueblo.  CF&I owned the land and created a unique company-owned town standing just west of the Walsenburg City Limits called, Walsen Camp.

The power plant was built in 1898.  The coal brought from the nearby Walsen and Robinson Mines fired the power plant’s boilers and provided light and the power to pump out water for approximately 400 men working deep inside the mine’s 50 miles of underground tunnels and shafts.  “There was a previous power plant before the one now standing, but it was inadequate and a second one was built by the Trinidad Power Company to primarily provide light and pump out ground water,” said Carolyn Newman, docent of the Walsenburg Mining Museum.  And soon, the power plant was providing electricity to the towns of Walsenburg and La Veta as well as Walsen camp.  “Records show that approximately 80 miners died in the two mines,” Newman said.  “Miners came here from Europe, Mexico and as far as Japan.”

Walsen Camp no longer exists, but at its height in the 1920’s, approximately 1,200 people lived there in 200 company homes.  The hard-working miners were looking for their own small slice of the highly-touted American dream.  The small frame and stucco homes sat on crawl spaces made of concrete.  There were two models of this home, and it was repeated throughout all of CF&I’s coal mining camps.  If you look closely around Walsenburg, you can still find some of these homes.  Several were sold and moved into Walsenburg after the mines closed.  These small homes were all simple frame construction.  Outhouses were often shared by several families.

Many of the miners and their families were recent immigrants who came here seeking a better life than the one they had in their home countries.  Not long after the start of the 20th century, CF&I built a school and a nearby YMCA to help provide a sense of community for the miners and their families.

In the 1930’s, the mine shafts began to flood with large quantities of ground water.  “At one point, for every ton of coal that came out, ten tons of water had to be pumped out,” Newman said.  Soon after, the mines were closed.  CF&I let the residents have the option to buy and subsequently move their homes to wherever they chose to move them.  CF&I required the final ten residents to move out in 1965 and what was left was then razed.

In 1955 the power plant was sold to the City of Walsenburg.  Under the capable direction of Harry Biggi, the power plant kept going until it could go no further.  In 1972, needed repairs and deferred maintenance were deemed by City Council to be too expensive.  The lights at the power plant were turned off and power was brought in though rural electrical cooperative associations.  San Isabel Electric now provides electricity to all of Huerfano County.

The Walsenburg Mining Museum is a treasure trove of great information about the numerous mining camps that existed here.  The museum’s exhibits and resources help us to retain a vision of what was tough, tedious and dangerous work.  In addition to the exhibits, photos, and news copy, numerous books on our mining and local history are for sale at the museum.

The future of the power plant is unclear.  Its fate rests with its owner and grant writers who perhaps one day will restore it to its former glory.  The county’s proposed walk along the Cucharas River will retrace the steps of the residents of Walsen Camp.  Except for the power plant, little remains of the company town, the company store, and the company school which provided many new to America with the hope of a prosperous future.

375 miles of Central Oregon beauty

For a first ride of the season, it was no baby step, clocking in at around 375 miles, we were both a little saddle sore by the time we pulled back into the shop this evening. We did see some gorgeous scenery, got to ride a few new miles of single-track pavement, and spent a little time exploring Twickenham School, built in 1906.

Photo Slideshow

Wandering through Wallace Idaho

Mike got away from work early enough Friday evening that we were able to make it to an old Motel in Hermiston. Got up this morning and flew across the flats and into the mountains of Idaho’s Panhandle. There’s silver and gold in these hills, and old mining towns galore.

We rode through this area a few years ago on our way up to Newfoundland, glancing off the freeway, doing 80mph and passing semis on the steep grade, we were both intrigued to see the old brick structures and decidedly vintage homes on the very steep hillsides. I remembered the town name and filed it away for a possible future visit.

Then last year I read an incredible book, The Big Burn, by Tim Egan, which chronicles a massive forest fire in 1910 that burned 3 million acres, and decimated Wallace and its residents. The opening chapter of the book is still so vivid in my mind, creating images of a roaring wildfire whipped by 70+ mph winds, whipping over the ridge above the town, and swooping down on the residents and the one train that will take them to safety. Really worth reading, especially if you are planning a trip to the area.

Wallace, after the fire

Although the fire wiped out about 1/3rd of the town, many of the original buildings are left. And what buildings they are! At the turn of the last century, Wallace was one of the richest cities in the west, producing more than a billion ounces of silver by the 1980’s. So, there was some money here, and plenty of it was spent on beautiful homes and business establishments.

We arrived in town around 11am, and pulled into our motel, the Stardust.

Stardust Motel Sign, with accompanying "escape pod"

The gal at the desk was very accommodating, juggling things around to get us a first floor room, then asking the maid to clean it right away so we could get in early. The maid happily dragged her cart from a completely different section of the hotel, cleaned the room in 20 minutes and we were in. Unfortunately, there was no refrigerator, we asked a guy who was fixing a lock on the room next to us if the other rooms had a fridge, he said yes. He talked to the desk clerk, who said our room was one of the few without, and so he simply unplugged the fridge from the room he was working in, and lugged it to our room!

Turns out the “maintenance man” was actually Scott Lasley, the president of the Wallace Chamber of Commerce! He made sure we had a local map and tour book, and said to just ask if we needed anything else. Wow! We’re in town for 20 minutes and already we’ve been treated like royalty! Turns out everyone we met here was just as friendly and accommodating. I can’t say enough nice things about the people here. Just amazing.

We hiked a few blocks down to the Sierra Silver Mine Tour building, and purchased tickets for the tour. I was hoping to also do the Burke tour, but missed out on the season opening by a few days. We didn’t really know what to expect from the Mine tour, only that we’d be taking a trolley (with some color commentary by the driver) up to an old mine, then be taken underground by a “real miner” and shown some mine operations.

Good thing they gave me this hat

This description makes it sound a bit cheesy, but the tour is really quite amazing and a little dangerous. Our mine guide was tall, gangly and a bit rough around the edges, probably about our age, and he’d been mining off and on his entire working life. Articulate, and very good at creating a word picture of what mining was like “back in the day”, and what it was like for miners today. Amazingly, he demonstrated mine equipment including a drill, a drag instrument, and a loader, all of which were of course, loud, and astonishingly evil-acting pieces of pneumatic machinery which could maim or kill you in a variety of ways.

Tour goers check out what's keeping the roof from becoming the floor

After the Mine tour, we wandered around town, taking pictures and checking out antique stores. Wallace has done a great job of showcasing the old while allowing new businesses to survive. I was very surprised at how quiet it was for a 3-day weekend, I really expected the place to be packed. I know that during the ATV jamboree it’s a madhouse, and I hope they get enough tourists during the rest of the year to keep things going.

I can’t express enough how nice the people are here, everyone, at every store, went out of their way to make sure we had a great time during our visit. Whether you are interested in history, love riding high mountain ATV and MC trails, or just enjoy wandering antique stores, go to Wallace, you’ll have a great time, guaranteed!

For us history buffs, Wallace has put out a great booklet with maps and descriptions of every historic building in town. It’s broken up by residential and business districts, and is very easy to follow. A huge asset, and it made our visit even more interesting.

Even furry residents of the town are ready to smile for the camera

As evening approached, our grumbling stomachs forced us to turn in to the Pizza Factory for their salad bar and some garlic breadsticks. After a filling meal, we headed back towards our room, on the way “home” this little sweetie rolled past, fitting cap to a great day in Wallace.

Back in our room at the Stardust, tired feet, tired bodies, comfy bed, ready for some sleep!

Photos Here

Home from Pendleton via Weston and Union

Slideshow Here

Saturday evening we got out the map to see what looked interesting on the loop back home. Mike’s motto is to never backtrack, so whatever we did, we’d at least cover different terrain than our ride in yesterday. My only goal was to spend time walking around Union and seeing their Hotel. After checking out some information online, we decided to check out Weston (near Athena – the birthplace of Hodaka motorcycles!) which was another pioneer town with a brick-faced downtown.

Dropping down towards Weston on Hwy 11

Weston is another cute little town with more past than present. I spent a bunch of time trying to dig up info, and compiled it here. A note to any historic society in small towns across the country – if you want people to come look at your historic downtown area, have a downloadable map of the area available on your Chamber of Commerce website. It would honestly take someone with a tiny bit of skill maybe a couple hours to make and it would really generate so much more interest in your town!

Anyway, off my bully pulpit and back on the bike! Weston is indeed worth a stop, with plenty of neat old buildings in the quiet downtown, and some older homes interspersed with new in the outlying areas.

I love the grass peeking out from the roof, and colored the same as the building

Cafe is closed. I think this is the worst thing about the economy, little places like this don't stand a chance.

Memorial Hall

Isham Saling House - This really should be a museum!

After wandering through the Sunday-quiet town and gawking at all the cool old houses, we headed down the road and towards Union

Near Tollgate on Hwy 204

More high water outside Union

I’d been wanting to spend some time wandering around Union, ever since we stopped here for lunch with our riding buddies a few years back.

As we pulled into town, Mike suddenly veered off the Main street and onto a side road, stopping in front of a yard sale. Uh oh. Well, how bad could it be, we’re on bikes, it’s not like he’s going to buy something big, right? Nope, but he did spot this stylin’ helmet, and once we found out it would fit in his side bag, he worked the owner down to five bucks and he was the proud owner of this 1970’s monstrosity.

The ultimate buddy helmet - you'd really have to want to ride to wear this!

The town has an interesting history, and it was so neat to see the old hotel up and running as a B&B. I’d tried to get a room here (great prices!), but they were completely booked, so we had to settle with wandering around and talking to the informative and humorous owner.

Furniture and Undertaking. I can see how these go together, sort of.

I'm wondering what prompted this sign facing the creek. Did they really have trouble with wayward horses and radical bikers floating the river?

Union High School's imposing front entrance

Many of the buildings have an odd asian flair to them

After wandering around town for a few hours, it was getting late, and time to head for home.

Well, I thought it was time to head for home, Mike found another antique store in North Powder, it was closed, but a quick phone call to the owner brought her down from her house behind the shop, and we had a great time wandering through her stuff and talking about various fun places we’d seen on our travels.

North Powder Antiques

Dry goods and water towers

The rest of the ride home was beautiful and quiet. We stopped at our favorite restaurant in John Day for a late lunch (awesome salads!) and got on the bikes for the last leg of the trip.

John Day River near flood stage

It was amazing to ride through Picture Gorge with the river so high.

This is what it usually looks like (photo from the same bend in the road, slightly different angle)

Highway 26, with little traffic on a Sunday afternoon is about the best way to finish a weekend-long ride.

Pendleton without the Roundup – Day 1

Photo Slideshow Here

So, I’m sure every Oregonian has spent at least one weekend of their lives at the Pendleton Roundup, it’s just part of growing up in the Beaver state (or Duck state, depending on what side of the Civil War you’re on).

Waaaay back in the 1990’s, we stopped here with Don and Tammy Hoxie on an Eastern Oregon Road trip, hung out downtown and did the Cozy Girls tour.

Nearly 20 years later, I thought it might be time for a revisit, especially now that we’re more interested in history and have a longer attention span (but shorter memory!).

Adding to the attraction would be a stop in Heppner to visit the museum which is never open when we’re riding through – not that they’re never open, we just ride through at weird times!

Heppner had a major defining moment in their history back in 1903 a flood raced through town on a lazy Sunday evening, decimating all the low lying areas and killing 247 people. The cemetery on the hill pays mute witness to this event, with many stones showing the same date of death, June 14, 1903.

I was looking forward to seeing the museum’s photos history of this event, along with everything else showing the history of the area.

The ride through Fossil to Heppner is one of my favorites in Oregon. From spring-swollen rivers to wide-open dry wheat fields, it climbs into heavily forested mountains and then dips back down to steep twisty canyons, then follows straight sections through windswept and lonesome plateaus. Really some of the most varied landscape and riding I’ve experienced. But shhhhhh, don’t tell everyone, or it’ll get all crowded and nasty!

We arrived in town about a half hour before the museum was set to open, so we searched around for a restaurant with salads. The gal at the gas station said “the bowling alley has great food!”, uh, oooookay. We rode around a bit more and didn’t find anything else promising, so to the bowling alley we went. The decor doesn’t inspire dining confidence:

Mikey likes the "custom" upholstry

But if you don’t sit in the ripped areas and are careful about leaning back too far on the loose backrest, you’ll be treated to a great meal by a friendly staff. Proves again that looks aren’t everything!

The museum looks tiny from the outside, sharing half a municipal building with the library, but inside you find rooms heading off in three different directions, and multitudes of well documented and well-presented neat old stuff!

Can you spot the USPO letters in this pic?

Mike's biggest nightmare - finding a cool vintage motorcycle toy in a Museum instead of an Antique Store!

Second half of the museum - includes all the farm implements and old cars and trucks

After a short stop for a photo op in front of the beautiful Heppner Court House, we were back on the road towards Pendleton

Court House in Heppner

Grasslands and swooping rock formations on the Heppner Highway

We actually rode through a few sprinkles near Vinson, but by Pendleton it had cleared up and was a beautiful evening.

Walking around Pendleton, we found plenty of neat old buildings to gawk at. Unfortunately, it looks like many of them were renovated about 10 years ago, but have deteriorated since, with no money for good upkeep. There’s such a variety of building styles here, it really makes the neighborhoods fun to walk through. Stucco next to Victorian next to brick homestead next to Tudor. Who needs a rodeo when there’s old buildings to see!

Pendleton First Methodist Episcopal Church

Carnegie-Funded Arts Center Building

Amazing what a comma can do for meaning. But maybe they meant what they said?

It started getting too dark to take pictures, so we headed back to the room for a good night’s sleep

Moonrise over Knight's Inn